Gone are the days of dreaming about having one of the greatest bullpens of all time, let alone one of the best in the bigs. In 2020, the Yankees finished 21st in FanGraphs’ reliever WAR, nearly three whole wins away from the first-place Rays in the shortened season. Due to disappointing campaigns from Adam Ottavino, Jonathan Holder, and an injured Tommy Kahnle, the bullpen has gone from one of the Yankees’ greatest strengths to a question mark.
Kahnle and Holder are free agents, while Ottavino sits on shaky ground moving forwards, and the same can be said for intriguing but unproven youngster Clarke Schmidt. As for Chapman, chances are he doesn’t get COVID again, but with MLB’s laissez faire attitude towards safety precautions in a pandemic, it’s anybody’s best guess as to which people, and how many, wind up contracting the virus. On the bright side, Chad Green and Zack Britton are coming off two of the best seasons of their respective careers, have shown no signs of slowing down, and are each under contract for at least the year after next.
In taking stock of the 2021 Yankee bullpen’s pecking order, the team still has a big three of Green, Britton, and Chapman at the top, but could use some help beefing up the unproven performers who reside in the slots below them. One direction they might look is towards a former member of the club, Kirby Yates. 2020 was unkind to Yates; he finished with a sky-high 12.46 ERA, as he only pitched 4.1 innings due to season-ending surgery to remove bone chips in his pitching elbow.
While Yates was a mere waiver add by the Padres after the Yankees, and then Angels, let him walk, his addition of a splitter turned him into one of the finest relievers in all of baseball. Across two full seasons with San Diego, 2018 and ’19, Yates posted an ERA+ of 240 while striking out 13.9 batters per nine innings to just 2.2 walks. However, before the elbow injury cut his shortened season even shorter, Yates was—in the parlance of Keith Hernandez—”getting…lit.”
Of Yates’ two pitches, the culprit, oddly enough, was his perennially sucio splitter. While his fastball maintained its velocity and performed equally or better than in past seasons, the pitch that reoriented the trajectory of his career was getting mercilessly hammered—sort of. The rate stats look horrible: against Yates’ splitter in 2020 opponents slugged .778 and posted a wOBA of .524. However, his xwOBA was a still bad but less egregious mark of .391. So it seems as though at least a little bit of bad luck played against him.
Further, those ghastly averages were derived from just four hits—four—all of which came from above average to excellent major league hitters. First, David Peralta rolled over a middle-away splitter resulting in a seeing eye single through the hole up the middle. Second, Charlie Blackmon flared a “duck fart” into the triangle between left, short, and center, leading to a single. Third, Nolan Arenado beat a good splitter down in the zone with an even better swing, lacing a grounder into center for another single. And finally, Yates hung one to the wrong cat, as Cody Bellinger took a splitter that caught too much of the plate over 400-feet and over the right field fence of Petco Park:
All told, Kirby Yates gave up just a handful of hits on his splitter in a small 2020 sample, only two of which were struck well, and by two of the game’s very best sluggers. Further, Yates’ whiff-rate and put-away percentage on the pitch actually bested his career highs in 2019—the year after he slightly altered his grip, adding almost three more inches of vertical break. Instead of fading like a hard changeup, Yates’ splitter now moves like a lefty’s slider, but from the right side. Though Yates’ 2020 surface numbers might look like he’s over the hill, the reality boils down to little more than a couple mislocated pitches and some bad luck in a handful on innings.
With Trevor May scoring a deal worth $16.5 million over two years, the free agent market for relievers could be as fertile as ever, but then again, them’s the Mets. On the other hand, Cleveland declined Brad Hand’s $10 million option for 2021, and he’s been objectively better than May for a longer period of time. While the Indians are seemingly seeking to tear down, you’d have to imagine they’d have been able to move Hand on a relatively low number for some asset.
If Kirby Yates is healthy — and only he (if anyone) can know truly that — he’d be a value add for any team that can afford him on a seven-digit salary. Despite his recent injury, unfortunate 2020 season, and confusing free agency market, the Yankees ought to think long and hard about adding one of the game’s best relievers to the front of their bullpen, so long as he’s open to negotiating with teams outside of temperate San Diego. And perhaps, as an added bonus, he could even help Chapman develop his own splitter.